Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

One of the biggest real-world political riddles of the 21st century--how to protect individual freedoms while bolstering national security--is at the center of a sinister plan to destroy the world's foremost security organization (S.H.I.E.L.D.), bury its superheroes, and exterminate millions of other people in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest of Disney's Marvel comic-book projects. This familiar sociopolitical undercurrent adds a (small) dose of plausibility to the otherwise typical superhero fare and lifts this sequel to keep it on par with its 2011 predecessor, The First Avenger. It was Americana and the nostalgia associated with World War II that made that first film a standout; this time, it's old-fashioned conspiratorial thrills and the chemistry between Cap (Chris Evans) and Natasha, a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) that makes the 136-minute run time fly by.

Somehow, directors Anthony and Joe Russo manage to keep the story coherent amidst a barrage of new characters and twisty subplots. There is a lot going on in Winter Soldier. Why is the normally cool and collected S.H.I.E.L.D. director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in a welcome expanded role) acting so strangely lately? What, if anything, is Natasha Romanoff hiding from Captain America? Why is the woman who lives across the hall from Cap (Emily VanCamp) so interested in him and yet so unwilling to join him for a date? And who is the murderous, shadowy man some people call the "Winter Soldier"? The Captain, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, is still somewhat bewildered (although this emotion is unfortunately downplayed) by having been "frozen" and presumed dead in the 1940s only to be "awakened" and called back into action in the present day, effectively time travelling seventy-plus years into a future full of new technology and dark threats. But as these questions begin to be answered he is forced to enter a labyrinth of deadly attacks, political corruption and friends who can't be trusted. Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official who epitomizes the latter of those dilemmas. The very likable Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, whose humble but high-flying antics help save the day.

Winter Soldier features the requisite CGI-laden action sequences; they don't necessarily up the ante in the special effects arena but are, of course, impressive and fun to watch. One scene in which Nick Fury's SUV is being shot at is particularly notable for its humor and excess. The film's third act certainly plays by the comic-book genre's unwritten rules: (1) blow as much stuff up as possible, (2) cause as much destruction as possible, (3) have one or more key characters disappear for a while and then reappear and precisely the right moment, and, (4) by whatever means necessary, have the protagonist almost die. But, as with other Marvel films, this fiery bombast is not an end unto itself. As incredible as the action may be, it supports rather than overwhelms the central themes of friendship, loyalty, and service. Therefore, Winter Soldier stands on its own as a deserved blockbuster and also whets our appetite for the future "Marvel Cinematic Universe" films that are already in the pipeline, most of all next year's Avengers sequel and 2016's planned third installment in the Captain America franchise which was announced by Disney just this afternoon.

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